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Beneteau 31

2008 September 29

An affordable small cruiser that's easy to sail

The new Beneteau 31 is all about lifestyle. This compact cruiser is ideal for new sailing families just setting out on their first adventures together, and equally suited to retired Baby Boomers looking to downsize from their larger yachts.

As we learned during an August test sail out of Cape Yachts in South Dartmouth, Massachusetts, the boat is easy to rig and even easier to sail, two characteristics that will likely make the Beneteau 31 a top contender in the market for cruising sailboats on the smaller side. And given its economical 20-horsepower Yanmar engine, it's sure to attract those concerned about escalating fuel costs at the dock.

Among the features you immediately notice about the boat is its roomy cockpit and 36-inch-diameter, leather-covered wheel. The pedestal supports the wheel, a binnacle compass, throttle control lever and an instrumentation panel that includes a Raymarine C80 color chartplotter and multifunction graphic display. Adjacently located are the autopilot, electronic compass and a wind gauge with true and apparent settings. The folding plastic cockpit table is also supported by the pedestal and can be locked into position within seconds. Stepping aboard is effortless. The bathing platform, with its fixed, drop-down stainless steel swim ladder, leads to a passageway made by lifting the hinged helm seat. The seat stays up with help from a stainless steel gas strut. That means no clambering over lifelines or undoing pelican hooks when boarding or leaving. Just back up the boat into its slip and step off onto the dock. A portion of the seat on the port side is hinged and can be lifted to access an optional life raft pod.

When the time comes to set sail, few boats offer such simplicity. The Neil Pryde Lazy Bag keeps the classic mainsail tucked away, just as the roller furler encases the 105-percent headsail. All lines lead back to the cockpit, controlled by a row of rope clutches bolted to the cabintop on the port side. The best part of the arrangement, at least aboard this boat, is the absence of in-mast or in-boom furling that might jam. There's nothing fancy here. Nothing complicated. As the wise men say, when at sea, keep it simple.

The boat features a rigid boom vang and with tackle and a coachroof-mounted mainsheet traveler. The two genoa winches are within easy reach of the helmsman. The semi-batten main is fitted with two continuous-line reefing points. The mast and boom are aluminum, the standing rigging stainless steel wire.

Below the water, the Beneteau's bulb keel has a draft of 5 feet, 11 inches, although an optional 4-foot, 3-inch model is available. The spade rudder is constructed of stainless stock. Unlike most boats, there's never a question aboard the Beneteau 31 about where to store the weatherboards to the companionway. The glass partition unlocks and slides in a track. By lifting the glass panel and pushing forward, it disappears into a thin compartment built into the cabintop. The main sliding hatch cover, also made of glass, does the same, slipping nicely atop the weatherboards.


Down below, the layout is startlingly spacious; the headroom is more than six feet is some places. Portlights in the coachroof allow sunlight to penetrate and flood the saloon, giving it a buttery glow. At the bottom of the companionway, a comfortable nav station occupies a niche on the starboard side next to the head. There's enough space to spread out a partially folded chart. The desk is outfitted with an ample drawer, and the bulkhead facing the navigator supports the VHF radio, optional music system and vital electronics such as depth and speed.

The Beneteau 31 can sleep a family of four. A small portal facing astern enhances the aft cabin, located on the port side. Mattresses in both the aft cabin and the V-berth are of high quality, ensuring a good night's sleep.

Settees on both sides of the saloon flank a congenial floor plan that's ideal for entertaining. The dinette converts into a full-size dining table by lifting the hinged wing and sliding a couple of bolts into place. Once again, no mess, no fuss.

The galley is fully visible from the saloon, which is great for making sure the chef can be part of the action instead of isolated behind a bulkhead or stuffed into a remote corner. A gimbaled two-burner stove is supplemented with a 110-volt microwave oven beneath. The icebox with 12-volt refrigerator is built into the counter and accessed by a top-open hatch, while the two-basin stainless steel sink caps the end of the L-shaped galley.

There's plenty of storage space in the Beneteau 31. Each cabin has a closet. The galley has plenty of cabinets, and beneath the settees are large compartments. The cockpit has a roomy locker accessed by lifting a portion of the teak-slatted cockpit bench on the starboard side. It's there that deck lines, fenders, boat hooks, life jackets and other bulky items can find a home. The boat carries 34 gallons of diesel and an equal amount
of water.

The exterior of the Beneteau 31, both the hull and deck plan, is the work of Finot-Conq & Associates. With its 31-foot length and 11-foot beam, the boat doesn't quite fit the classic minimum 3-to-1 ratio of length to width that tends to promote a more graceful line in the water.

The interior architecture and design come from the drawing boards of Italy's Nauta Design. The overall atmosphere below deck is warm, fostered by wood veneers and cabin sole hardwoods. With the exception of flimsy portal curtains and plastic fittings that won't likely survive a season, the interior appears handsome and well crafted. Only the head raises a few questions and concerns.

On the starboard side aft, the head features a toilet, tiny sink, a hose with squirt head for a shower, and a 21-gallon holding tank with 12-volt macerator pump. Horizontal mirrors run the length of the counter and are tilted at a dramatic angle. The mirrors double as doors to the compartments beneath, and due to the design, these long, hinged cabinet doors hang in the air when open, like bird wings.

Before setting out on our test sail on Cape Cod, we inspected the engine compartment beneath the companionway steps. The steps lift up and are held in that position until pressure to close is applied. The batteries are directly in front of the engine. Fluid sticks and filters are within easy reach. The companionway steps feature a hole into which a fire extinguisher hose can be inserted in case of fire, eliminating the need to expose the engine compartment to increased oxygen and perhaps more easily allow flames to spread into the cabin. It's a small safety touch, but an important one.

The engine, which cranks a fixed three-blade propeller, can also be accessed via side panels. The battery switches are located in the aft cabin where they are visible and accessible, unlike some boats that install them below the berths, making them near impossible to reach in an emergency.

Under sail

During a test sail that took us beyond the Padanaram Breakwater Light and into Apponagansett Bay, the smallest of the Beneteau line handled admirably. As we headed toward Buzzards Bay, the wind fluctuated between 8 and 12 knots, plenty to push this vessel along. Within a few minutes we had the mainsail raised, watching it climb smoothly between the lazy jacks. The jib unfurled just as smoothly.

Were it necessary to scamper about the deck, there was little to trip over. The mainsheet traveler on the coachroof is out of the way, as it should be, rather than bolted across the cockpit benches as it is aboard some boats. The traveler is clearly part of the pre-production plan, not an afterthought.

Had we been anchored instead of tied to a slip, we might have more closely examined the boat's hinged chain locker, with its horizontal, molded chain pipe.

Perhaps one of the most welcomed features of the entire design is the visibility it offers from the helm, even to those who are vertically challenged. At 5 feet, 4 inches, one of the test crew could easily see where she was steering without having to get on her tippy toes.

It was a toasty August day, but the boat stayed cool below, due to the abundant sources of ventilation. We tacked repeatedly in Apponagansett Bay, putting the boat through its paces while avoiding the countless lobster pot buoys. The boat's relatively small headsail made these maneuvers near effortless.

The Beneteau 31 proved nimble, turning efficiently in response to each shift in the wheel. It was quick, the air coursing between the sails on a beam reach, forcing her forward. And best of all, it
was fun.

Most sailors would probably agree that this little cruiser, packed with more amenities than a camper, is less about form and more about function, but those unfazed by such measures will chuckle on the way to the bank. At about $110,000, the Beneteau 31 is a bargain.